Michelle Yeoh, left, and Ziyi Zhang star in "Memoirs of a Geisha," a movie that has promoted much debate about the geisha ideal.
Cultural forum to take cool look at hot topic
The swirl of controversy that greeted the film "Memoirs of a Geisha" provides the fuel for the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii's latest panel discussion, "Shadows of a Geisha," taking place Tuesday.
'Shadows of a Geisha'
Panel discussion: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Place: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, fifth floor
The event opens discussion on racial and gender stereotypes associated with the geisha and what, if any, impact stereotypes based on that iconic figure have had on Asian women in contemporary society.
"Because of all the hype and publicity, (the film) brings back, to a certain degree, potential stereotypes of Japanese women as sensual, exotic, subservient women," said JCCH programs director Brandon Hayashi.
The discussion is the fourth in the JCCH's Japanese American Social Issues Series in Hawaii. Hayashi said, "We have no set program throughout the year, but it's a vehicle for us to discuss contemporary issues affecting the Japanese community, positively or negatively.
"In one sense you can interpret 'shadow' as something that moves along with you, that you can't get rid of," Hayashi said. "A shadow is also not a real thing, and are the stereotypes really a problem, or a problem as a shadow of someone's imagination?"
The panel, moderated by Chris Yano, will feature former journalists Jade Moon and Barbara Tanabe, and actresses Kati Kuroda and Alicia Michioka-Jones. Audience members are invited to participate, and seeing the movie is not a prerequisite for speaking up.
Tanabe, a former reporter and anchor at KHON, now is an owner and partner of Ho'akea Communications, a public affairs company, counseling clients in Asia and the United States in areas of cross-cultural communications and crisis management. She said some of the criticism aimed at "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a result of a misunderstanding of the geisha role in Japanese society.
"I read some reviews by critics who described them as prostitutes because we have nothing else in Western culture to compare them to, but it's totally wrong to call a geisha a prostitute. My father calls them preservers of the culture," she said, in light of their devotion to keeping traditional artforms of music, musicianship and dance alive.
"I didn't think the geisha as portrayed in this film were weak women. They were very strong to have survived under extreme hardship."
To see only the pretty packaging in refined makeup and colorful kimono is to miss the big picture of women's strength, intellect, work ethic and resilience.
"The stereotype we're talking about is of this lovely, sensual, subservient creature, and that's not us," Tanabe said. "(The stereotypes are) a reflection on size more than anything else. Because we're small, we're seen as less powerful and less able to fend for ourselves. That impression doesn't last long.
"To assume we're all going to play that role because we look the same is unfair."
However, the appearance of being less than intimidating might have helped Tanabe's career when she started in 1970, long before Asian-American women became fixtures on local news.
"Perhaps in a way the stereotype allowed me an opportunity to enter a field where men didn't feel threatened.
"Stereotypes have probably been more helpful to Asian women than Asian men, but stereotypes are bad, whether they're positive or negative. It's just a bad way to judge people."
She hopes that those going to see the movie will see it for what it is, an escapist Hollywood love story with cultural dressing.
Although the filmmakers got some details wrong, Tanabe said, "If I wanted historical accuracies I would go to the library or watch a documentary."
More important to her was feeling a sense of the filmmakers' reverence for Japanese culture, and she hopes that will register with viewers.
"They should think of Japanese culture as one that's very old, refined and get a sense of its values. That would be important. But to try to transpose a Western stereotype of Asian women to real Asian women would be a stretch."
Before TALking about the film, Moon qualifies her observations by saying they come from a thoroughly Western perspective.
"It is true that in the past Asian women were portrayed as dragon ladies or shy, passive, sexual, submissive people, but I really think the world has come a long way. I think people are smarter today and more global.
"It's important to keep a cool head and have some common sense about it and realize this isn't the most egregious example or most offensive movie about Japan," she said. "It's just a movie, and not a very good movie. It's a Hollywood fantasy directed through Western eyes and written by a Western man. And if it's Hollywood, of course they're gonna make the geisha look like ideal women."
Moon said she encountered few incidences of stereotyping in the news business, where "if you're competent, people treat you accordingly."
Prior to entering journalism, though, she worked as a model and said she was deemed "a type." "So I've seen both sides and wasn't scarred horribly, though once you're stuck in a type, the next step is to break out of it, because the type will hold you back.
"It's an interesting discussion to have. If it weren't for similar dialogs all along, we wouldn't be where we are today."
She said Hollywood, and filmmakers in general, have been some of the best advocates for breaking down barriers, offering up diverse voices and stories. "Look at Sandra Oh. She's someone who's gotten roles that are not ethnic-specific. We need more of that."